Archived Story

The little credit card on the prairie is a liar

Published 4:39pm Saturday, September 28, 2013

Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster

Charles Ingalls is my financial adviser.

A few months ago my husband, Graham, and I were watching “Little House on the Prairie,” the one where the family is in the mercantile and Pa can’t pay for all the new shoes. It’s cash on the barrel for him.

Sure, Tragic Mary (as Graham and I like to call her) had to wear her old shoes until the crop came in, but at least Pa could walk out of there knowing he didn’t owe anyone anything, except for Tragic Mary with her tragic old shoes.

My relationship with money was always something of a soap opera. We get together, only to break up. Money disappears and comes back from the dead. Later, I find out money isn’t money at all. Money is its evil twin, credit. Credit is glamorous, duplicitous and tells me I’m pretty, but deep down I know it’s no substitute for the real thing.

So I leave credit while a sad musical montage plays showing all the fun things we did together spending money we didn’t really have.

Before credit swept me off my feet I was more or less fiscally astute. When I was a kid I never got a formal allowance. Now and then my mom or dad would hand me $5, and I made every cent count. I could stretch a penny until it looked like it was run over by a train.

When I needed more I found ways to get it. If I couldn’t sell my sisters’ things at a garage sale, I’d set up a table in front of the bookshelves in our living room and persuade my family to check out their own books. The due dates were printed clearly in magic marker on the back covers. They thought I was only pretending to play library until I showed up two days later saying, “You owe me a dime.” I was a veritable Danny Partridge in a Catholic school uniform.

Then I got my first credit card. The application floated into my lap from between the pages of my philosophy of logic textbook with all the irony that implies. A major credit card company, which shall remain nameless — maybe you will discover it for yourself, wink wink — thought it was prudent to give a 19 year old student who worked 20 hours a week at the mall a $2,000 credit limit. I wasn’t going to argue with them.

I swiped with abandon and signed with a flourish. Interest? Sure, I’ll pay interest. Interest is as American as apple pie. It was practically my patriotic duty to pay interest.

One card led to another and soon I was juggling plastic like the sad clown at the circus. Friends, it got pretty ugly before it got better. And for years it did get better until my twins came along.

I got baby fever and the remedy was retail. There is a lot of cool baby stuff out there, little shirts with “The Godfather” printed on them, baby sized faux fur coats, jogging strollers that ride like Cadillacs, it’s a wonderland and falling down the rabbit hole is oh, so easy.

That’s why I needed Charles Ingalls to pull me into reality.

Now I use cash for everything discretionary, and there are no secret trips to the ATM. I have an envelope of money in my purse each week, and when it’s gone it’s gone.

Lifestyle changes are never easy. Spending actual money forces me to reevaluate what’s important. Do I buy this magazine or just find the longest checkout line and read it while I wait? Do I really need top shelf shampoo? It’s not like it makes that much difference. My hair isn’t suddenly reciting Shakespeare because I spent 24 dollars washing it.

When I pay for something with exact change people seem either amused or irritated. One person actually sighed and shook his head at me as I was counting out my pennies the other day. “This is legal tender, buddy,” I told him. “Ever hear of the United States Mint? How about the Coinage Act of 1792?”

I felt good. Not only did I defend the lowly penny, I used my history minor for the very first time.

Using cash is empowering. I feel like that kid again making my money count. I am in control. It’s cash on the barrel for me, for now. I still have my plastic. Who knows? The day may come when mama needs a new pair of shoes.

 

Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at alikloster@yahoo.com, and her blog is at alexandrakloster.com.